Community of Foreigners: Bonhoeffer’s Theses for a Time of Resurgent Nationalism

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) knew the grief of love for an embattled nation. He lost family members in the war and then watched punitive measures from the Versailles treaty contribute to a decade of economic hardship for the German people. Bonhoeffer sought to bring these homeland struggles to the attention of an ex-patriate community that he pastored in Spain at the end of the 1920s. His lectures from that period show how deeply love for his people ran, even to the point of disregarding the lives of others in the pursuit of national interests.

Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer’s love of the Christ-community ran deeper still, a commitment that caused him to turn sharply against many of his earlier views. In 1933, when the National Socialists had taken power and suspicion of foreigners had reached a critical juncture, Bonhoeffer nailed his theses to the church door. At issue was the ‘Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service’, which included a paragraph that entailed demotion for civil servants of Jewish descent. Bonhoeffer opposed the enforcement of this law against the church’s ministers, writing and contributing to several statements of which the most succinct was his ‘Theses on the Aryan Paragraph in the Church’. Today, as nationalism surges across Europe and North America, straining commitments to refugee persons, Bonhoeffer’s claims deserve another hearing.

In the theses, Bonhoeffer argues that the church has its own distinct identity and should not be caught ‘emulating whatever the state does.’ True loyalty to the state, in his revitalisation of Luther’s doctrine, involved the church remaining true to its own free character as church. As a ‘racial law’ threatened to cut across the pastorate, Bonhoeffer maintained that the church’s borderline could be nothing other than the gospel as Word and Sacrament. In this case, scripture spoke of an irreparable breach in the dividing wall between Gentile and Jew while baptism had bound members together with ‘indissoluble ties’.

Bonhoeffer had been arguing for such a Reformation understanding of the church’s unity since his first dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, over and against the idea that the church was held together through ‘community romanticism’ or ‘feelings of solidarity’. The true basis of church unity, he claimed, could therefore be most clearly perceived when conflict between groups—‘Jew and Greek, pietist and liberal’—is most acute and yet they come together around pulpit, font and table. Bonhoeffer’s position is reprised in the 1933 theses when he states that ‘the church is not a community of people who are all the same but precisely one of people who are foreign to one another who are called by God’s Word’. Against then-contemporary Lutheran appeals to ‘race’ as a divine order of creation, Bonhoeffer reclaims ecclesial priority: ‘The Volk of God is an order over and above all other orders’.

Bonhoeffer’s theses mounted a timely argument for the gospel as his tradition had received it: the church, founded on the authority of Word and Sacrament, relativises all other ‘laws’. As a statement fit for his day, however, these arguments require more than reprinting to answer the current pressures of nationalism on God’s people. Less still would the church’s position be fortified by belated censure of Nazi-era policies. Working from Bonhoeffer’s arguments, two lines of adaptation suggest themselves.

First, while the church will always be embedded in national contexts, it should recognise the freedom of its unique, God-ordained polity. In other words, to conclude by lobbying an elected representative is to cut short the church’s realisation of its catholicity as a political event in its own right. This challenge has been memorably put by Stanley Hauerwas, who states that the church does not merely have a social ethic; it is a social ethic. To that end, Bonhoeffer’s position shows that principled inclusion, in which foreigners are kept in the role of beneficiary, is not enough; a thoroughgoing ecclesial ethic works to have foreigners holding spiritual authority over ‘native’ members. Such an endeavour raises critical questions surrounding which criteria make a minister ‘fit’ for a parish, particularly in light of what Willie James Jennings identifies as a diseased Christian imagination when it comes to racial belonging.

Second, church members are free for their nation, in its guilt as well as its promise. Freedom, as Bonhoeffer argues elsewhere, is not merely freedom from. This conviction was tested in his own life when, in the summer of 1939, he became a refugee from his homeland and an alluring cosmopolitan future opened to him. His likely fame as a thinker-in-exile was assured, given the important American theologians who were looking out for him. Never one for ‘private virtue’, however, Bonhoeffer returned not only to the company of the persecuted but also to bear the guilt of his nation. This meant that, as his people’s government became increasingly brutal, his course of action set him under suspicion for, alternately, complicity in the regime and treason against it.

Bonhoeffer’s line of argument against restrictive nationalism, from the theses to his choice to bear part of the nation’s guilt, shows that the freedom of the ‘community of foreigners’ is different in kind from that offered by ‘globalisation’. This is particularly the case if the latter leads one to enjoy a nation’s privileges while evading its outstanding debts—a selectivity that remains tempting for Christian citizens who benefit from imperial histories. Genuine reckoning with national identity, in the midst of this current period of ‘nativism’, requires that churches ask anew what it means to be a people created by water and the Word.


For Further Reading: Bonhoeffer’s 1933 essays on the church, alongside his university lectures, sermons, and letters, can be found in Volume 12 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English (DBWE), from which citations for this article are taken. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Berlin: 1933. Edited by Larry Rasmussen. Translated by Isabel Best and David Higgins. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

This is the early version of an article submitted to the Summer 2017 issue of the Scottish Episcopal Institute Journal.

© David Robinson, 2018